Religio-Cultural Life of Pakistan

by Atty. Latif Chaudhry


Pakistan came into being on August 14, 1947. The area that constitutes Pakistan is the birth place of one of the most ancient and rich civilizations of the human race. Excavations at Mohenjodaro in the province of Sindh and Harappa in the province of the Punjab have revealed that this part of the sub-continent of India was once the homeland of highly cultured and civilized people. History has not recorded the causes of the fall of these great civilizations. But as has happened with all the major civilizations of the world, they lost their vitality with the passage of time and ultimately vanished from the face of the earth. However, not without leaving their impact on the societies which emerged from their ruins. The civilizations of Mohenjodaro and Harappa disappeared. Similarly, however the land did not loose its creativity. History saw the emergence of fine cultural and religious traditions in these parts.

These traditions were kept alive by the Muslim saints and scholars mostly of Persian origin, who used the area constituting present day Pakistan, as their base for spreading the message of Islamic mysticism, which contains very humane, tolerant, and progressive traits. They were extremely popular among the common people, both Hindus and Muslims, and commanded their respect and veneration. They explained religion to the people in their own language and preached harmony amongst different religions. Their message was of love, tolerance and brotherhood amongst human beings irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Here, it must be clarified that there were two trends in Islam. One was associated with the courts of the Muslim rulers. This was the official version, imbibing all traits of the ruling class politics. While the other was professed by the Muslim saints and mystics and had its roots amongst the rural masses. The message of the saints was simple, humane and free from theocratic subtleties. They conversed in poetry and in the local languages, which the common folk understood very well. Their message was carried far and wide and it laid the foundations of a multi- religious society in the sub-continent. The religious harmony and equilibrium so established was, however, disturbed after the Hindu-Muslim divide in the sub-continent. It can be said that the tolerant and humane interpretation of Islam was the dominant intellectual current. Still a substantial part of the rural population and enlightened urban sections, even today believe in these lofty ideals.

The British Colonial rule not only introduced modern means of production in the sub-continent, but also disturbed the religious harmony inculcated amongst the people by the saints and mystics. The last Mughal King, Aurengzeb, had already sown the seed of hatred between Hindus and Muslims through his sectarian policies. In fact, he was the architect of the fall of Mughal empire in the sub-continent. The Muslim reaction to British rule was very confused. After finding themselves incapable of defeating a superior power, the majority withdrew and took refuge in religious rigidity. They refused to acknowledge the reality and identified themselves with reactionary feudal values, believing them to be the religious and cultural heritage of the Muslims. They kept away from English education, trade and industry, misconceiving it to be against their religion. This resulted in increased backwardness and illiteracy amongst the Muslim masses.

However, during nineteenth century another trend emerged which was led by personalities equipped with modern education like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Syed Amir Ali, Sir Mohammad Iqbal, Agha Khan and many others. They advocated the need for a reinterpretation of Islam in the light of modern realities and encouraged Muslims to acquire western education and to stand up and face the new world. In 1906, this group formed the Muslim League to help materialize these ideals and aspirations. Later on, this political party achieved the dream of the creation of Pakistan. Opposed to them were the Muslim clergy and their followers, who considered the Muslim League leaders as stooges of British colonialists and renegades of the Muslim community. This struggle between the reactionary, orthodox interpretation of Islam and the progressive, tolerant and humane interpretation which had been the hallmark of Islamic history in the sub-continent assumed another dimension. Although the modernists stressed the separate religious and cultural, identity of Muslims as against the Hindus of the sub-continent, still they were not religious fanatics and fundamentalists.

The creation of Pakistan was the result of apprehensions of the Muslim population of India that after the freedom of India, they would be subjected to exploitation and tyranny by the Hindu affluent section of the population, who traditionally controlled commerce, banking and trade. Initially their demands were restricted to seek a protected place in the then existing structure, but later on it turned into a separatist movement, with the slogan of a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. This led to acute sectarian polarization between the Hindu and Muslim population of India and finally at the eve of independence, it exploded into a barbaric frenzy resulting in unprecedented massacre on both groups. The hatred and detestation so generated has been the mainstream of fundamentalist forces in Pakistan and India, and has created delusions of insecurity in the minds of certain sections of people in both countries. Three wars have been fought between the two countries within a brief span of 44 years. This area is still considered as a potential threat to world peace, particularly in view of the fact that both countries are determined to acquire nuclear weapons.

The regional perspective has been consistently used by the ruling elite of Pakistan to demand ever increasing sacrifices from the poor masses. The growing expenditure on defense is one of the major causes of the poverty of our people. Apart from the disproportionately heavy defence expenses, the Pakistani society is dominated by the vested interests, mainly consisting of landowners, tribal heads, super rich capitalists and the state bureaucracy. Most of the political parties represent these vested interests. Therefore the changes in governments have been of peripheral effect as far as the common-folk of the country are concerned. They are condemned to live in poverty, misery and without health and educational facilities. According to our government’s own admission 10% of the country’s population i.e. 12 million people live below the poverty line. The literacy rate is hardly 28% which places Pakistan in the category of the most illiterate countries of the world. The problem of illiteracy has been compounded due to the rise of religious fundamentalism, which prohibits rational thought and debate in the society. The common folk are totally alienated from the management of their own affairs. Their destiny has been taken over by the powerful and affluent section of the society. The sense of deprivation has been further aggravated due to the over centralized state structure. The country consists of four provinces, i.e. the Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and the North Western Frontier Province. The Punjab is the largest province. More than 60% of the population hails from this province. The smaller provinces have serious grievances not only against the central government, but also against the Punjab, which according to their perception is over represented in the central government. The Constitution of the country, which has been mutilated by the late military ruler General Zia-ul Haq, has not been successful in containing the discontentment of the people of other provinces. Class oppression and encroachment on provincial rights, has made the people helpless, despondent and miserable. This situation has led people to seek protection behind different ideologies. Ethnicity and religious sectarianism are the main trends, which have given birth to many political organizations. Many people now feel proud in asserting their ethnicity or sectarian religious beliefs.

The most unfortunate part of the situation, is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country. The struggle between orthodoxy and enlightenment in the interpretation of Islamic injustices, although centuries old, has assumed added significance in Pakistan, as a powerful lobby is actively involved in structuring the society on a rigid outdated model of Islam. The worst sufferers of this onslaught are the women and non-Muslim and also enlightened citizens of Pakistan. The women and non-Muslim have been deprived of equal rights of citizenship, which is a flagrant violation of the Constitution, which guarantees non-discriminatory treatment on the basis of sex and religion. Not only are women being forced out of the mainstream by legislation, under the garb of Islamic traditions, they have also been relegated to a subordinate position as compared to male Muslims. Likewise, non-Muslims, much against their religious beliefs, have been subjected to Islamic laws. They are supposed to follow the Islamic laws which are now said to be the law of the land. At the same time they have been disqualified, being non-Muslim, to interpret that law before the courts. A recently enforced law which provides mandatory capital punishment for desecrating the person of the Holy Prophet of the Muslims, is particularly being misused by unscrupulous Muslims to settle score with non-Muslims and Muslims as well. An illustrious Muslim social worker, Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, is one such example. Whereas the case of Naimat Ahmr, Tahir Iqbal, both murdered after allegedly being disrespectful about the Holy Prophet, are two hair raising examples. There are at least 10 more Christians and scores of Ahmedis languishing in prisons on this account. Against the backdrop of pessimism, the ray of hope is the rich humane and non-sectarian religious traditions of these saints and mystics, which still hold sway on the rural population and the enlightened Muslims. The land has traditions which negate religious intolerance and hatred. Let us pray it blooms forth in its true colours.

[This paper was presented at the 25th CCA-URM Programme Committee Meeting, 22-30 January 1994, Karachi, Pakistan]